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Biographical entry Grenfell, Sir Wilfred Thomason (1865 - 1940)

CMG 1906; KCMG 1927; MRCS 9 February 1888; FRCS by election 8 April 1920; LRCP 1888; HonDM Oxford 1907; FACS 1915; MD Toronto; Hon MA Harvard; JP North Newfoundland.

23 February 1865
10 October 1940
Vermont, USA
General surgeon


Born 23 February 1865 at Parkgate-by-Chester, the second son of the Rev Algernon Sydney Grenfell, MA, who kept the Mostyn House private school at Parkgate, and Jane Georgina, his wife, daughter of Dr Thomas Hutchinson. The Grenfells came from Tor, Devonshire, and members of several generations, after graduating at Oxford, entered the Church and became schoolmasters at Rugby and elsewhere. Through his mother W T Grenfell was a second cousin of Robert Walker, first Archdeacon of Uganda (1857-1939) and of Henry Nevinson (1856-1941), the well-known journalist.

Wilfred Grenfell was educated at Marlborough, where he held a scholarship and proved himself a good Rugby footballer. He entered the London Hospital School of Medicine in 1883. Two years later, when returning one night from a midwifery case in Shadwell, he attended accidentally an evangelistic meeting held by Moody and Sankey in a large tent. The revivalists' preaching appealed to him, and his thoughts and actions were afterwards devoted to his life's work. Encouraged by the brothers J K and C S Studd he began to teach in a Sunday School and to work in boys' camps. In 1886, having obtained his certificate as a master mariner, he visited the North Sea fishing fleet under the auspices of the Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. He matriculated at Oxford from Queen's College on 20 October 1888, perhaps because his uncle, Edward Frederick Grenfell, had been a scholar of the College and probably with a view to taking Orders. He only remained a single term in the University and was then appointed as house surgeon to Sir Frederick Treves, who also held the certificate of a master mariner. He visited the North Atlantic in 1893 to enquire into the opportunities for service amongst the fishermen of the fleet. The voyage was made in a 90-ton ketch-rigged hospital ship, which took seventeen days to reach Newfoundland. He found St John's in flames and therefore went on to the coastal trading ports of the Hudson's Bay Co in Labrador. Here he found abundant opportunities for work and in a short time had treated 900 persons.

A Moravian mission had worked in Labrador for nearly a hundred years before Grenfell arrived, but had done little in the treatment of disease and less in the development of the natural resources. Grenfell soon found that he had under his care a population of some 30,000 persons, Indians and Eskimoes forming the majority. He first started a string of hospitals, and at the end of thirty-five years of devoted service he had organized schools and orphanages for the children, had developed the natural resources of the country, and had established a number of employment centres. The necessary money was found at first by lecture tours in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States; later by the formation of the "Grenfell Associations" which brought together the English-speaking peoples of America, Canada, Newfoundland, and Great Britain.

In the end "Grenfell of Labrador" became a household word in many different circles as one of the most remarkable Englishmen of his day, a hero, a true man, and a practical Christian. He impressed upon the world the economic value of Labrador. In a lecture to the Beaver Club at the house of the Hudson Bay Company in London, and also at the Mansion House, he called attention to the country's enormous resources, its vast tracts of forests, the richness of spruce, fir, and poplar with their potentialities for pulp and paper, the unworked mineral deposits and unharnessed water power, the supply of cod, salmon, and reindeer meat. He envisaged a great tourist traffic up the marvellous fjords and rivers of a country usually thought of as the Far North but really the part of the American Continent nearest to Europe, only 400 miles by air, whose chief port was in the same latitude as Edinburgh and most of the land south of London. In 1934 two tourist steamers put in on these coasts. Sir Wilfred had always planned an aerial survey of the country. Part of that was accomplished in 1931, when The Times published two articles by him describing the results. He believed Labrador would become most important in an imperial air system.

The Royal Family frequently showed their appreciation of Grenfell's labours. Edward, Prince of Wales, spoke of "the splendid work in a territory rapidly becoming an economic unit of great value to Newfoundland and the Empire", and King George VI and his Queen attended more than one meeting in support of the Mission. In his latter years more honours were conferred on Grenfell. He was Rector of St Andrew's University 1928-31. Oxford made him her first honorary DM and degrees were given him also by St Andrews, McGill, Toronto, Harvard, Princeton, and several other American universities; in the war of 1914-18 he was a major in Harvard University's surgical unit at Bologne. He received the Murchison grant of the Royal Geographical Society, the Livingstone gold medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and the gold medal of the National Academy of Social Sciences of America. Grenfell wrote several books, mostly autobiographical. The best known are The Labrador Doctor, Forty years in Labrador, and The Romance of Labrador.

In 1909 at Chicago he married Anne Elizabeth Caldwell MacClanahan, a graduate of Bryn Mawr and the daughter of a Southerner of Scottish extraction. She died in 1938. They had two sons and one daughter. A pleasant story is told about the events leading to his marriage. He first met his wife on a voyage across the Atlantic and being a man of impulse and decision asked her to marry him. "But we are hardly acquainted", she demurred, "why, you don't even know my name." "But that doesn't matter", he said, "what interests me is what your name is going to be." He died at Kinloch House, Charlotte, Vermont, USA on 10 October 1940.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 11 October 1940, p 7e, with portrait, 15 October 1940, p 7e, 15 November 1941, 1 December 1941; The Times Lit Supp 19 October 1940; Lancet, 1940, 2, 535, with portrait; Brit med J 1940, 2, 576, with portrait, and 1941, 2, 932, the Newfoundland "Grenfell" postage-stamp; DNB 1931-1940, 1949, p. 364, with further references; Grenfell's autobiographies, named in the text].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England